Every person has a right to freedom of conscience, whereby they cannot be compelled to perform or facilitate an action which they believe to be morally wrong. The right to freedom of conscience acknowledges the fact that we are responsible for our free actions and their consequences inasmuch as we can foresee them. It also acknowledges the fact that we cannot disclaim responsibility for our free actions simply because we are obeying the will of another person.
Because freedom of conscience is respected in a democratic society, there is also the right to conscientious objection, which is the right to refuse to perform or participate in an action with which the person does not agree.
Doctors, like everyone else, have the right to freedom of conscience. They are entitled to refuse to provide treatment which they consider to be morally wrong because to provide it would make the doctor responsible for the outcome. They are also entitled to refuse to help the patient access that treatment because that too would mean the doctor shares responsibility.
In the case of abortion, many doctors have profoundly held convictions about the right to life of the unborn child and they have the right not to perform any procedure which would deliberately end the child’s life. They also have the right not to facilitate abortion by giving information about or contact details of abortion providers.
Furthermore, doctors have the right to refuse to refer patients for abortion procedures. This is because, when a doctor refers a patient to another doctor for treatment, the referring doctor is agreeing that the treatment is necessary and in the patient’s interest. This is usually because the referring doctor does not have the required specialist training and so has to request another doctor to look after the patient. In the case of abortion, however, the referring doctor may have the required training but still, object in conscience. Referral for abortion would be asking another doctor to do something which the referring doctor believes to be wrong. It does not lessen the referring doctor’s responsibility for the outcome and so goes against his or her freedom of conscience.
Abortion legislation must recognise that doctors have the right not to perform abortions AND the right not to refer or provide information. Abortion legislation must also acknowledge the right of medical students and doctors-in-training to refuse to participate in procedures which they do not intend to perform as professionals because of conscientious objection.